Finally, the first trailer of, for me, one of my most long-awaited films has been released, and WOW! – it certainly looks as if this film has been well worth the wait. This is likely to be far more than the cult movie it would have been a few years ago and could turn out to be one of the most talked-about movies of 2015/16 – potentially a major contender for a raft of Oscars.
I have spent some time watching the trailer several times because I have been checking out all the reaction sites where people have videoed themselves watching the trailer and then comment, many of them apparently knowing nothing about the film before the viewing. That has been an eye-opening experience because I have not seen a single negative review so far, which is pretty surprising given that this is a movie about the first publicly acknowledged transgender woman and the first man to undergo full gender reassignment surgery almost 100 years ago.
But before I move on – why not watch the trailer yourself. Incidentally, this trailer was posted on 1st September, and now, 9 days later, it has already had well over 3 million views – that is the kind of response that you expect with a major studio blockbuster. OK, it is directed by Tom Hooper, the director of Les Miserables, and the lead actor is Eddie Redmayne, who has only recently won an Oscar for his portrayal of Steven Hawkins. But the story is not well known, and as far as I can tell from what I have read and heard – very few people were expecting the film or knew much about the story, and I will be addressing why the film is having such a huge reaction later.
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So now you have watched the trailer, what did you think? What surprised me is that even though this film is about the experiences of a trans woman in the 1920’s it is as relevant today as it was then. Even from the trailer, I can see that the film addresses all the major issues trans people and their families and friends face today. True, things are getting better; legislation has completely changed – but attitudes have not moved very far. I have been conducting Transgender Awareness Training workshops for 10 years now, and still, 80% of participants are female. Men seldom attend the workshops unless they are mandated to do so, and it is still mostly men who appear to have the most difficulty accepting trans people.
If you are a regular follower of my blog or have attended any of my transgender awareness workshops, you will know that I love the story of Lili Elbe. Lili was born Einer Wagener, a Danish landscape artist. He was married to Gerda, a portrait artist. Today, Gerda’s work is better known – through most commentary indicates that Einer was the better artist until he gave up painting and became Lili. Many of Gerda’s portraits and illustrations feature an unknown model who was later discovered to be Lili. It is believed that illustrations of Lili, which were featured in top magazines of the 1920s, were the inspiration for many 20’s fashions.
Apart from the outstanding performances from Eddie Redmayne as Lili and Alicia Vikander as Gerda, I think that what has made this trailer and the movie so instantly popular is that we really are seeing a global change in attitudes to transgender issues.
Over the past year, we have seen Laverne Cox become the first trans actor nominated for an Emmy for her part in Orange Is the New Black, Amazon’s Transparent receiving golden globe awards, the high-profile transition of Caitlyn Jenner, and her subsequent TV show, which is also raising the profile of other trans men and women and Jazz Jennings, nominated as one of the 25 most influential teenagers in the USA, now has a TV show helping families to understand and accept trans children.
And of course, here in the UK, we have a new trans sitcom, Boy Meets Girl, starring trans actress Rebecca Roots, who incidentally auditioned for the part of Lili and has a small part in the film a nurse. I am not sure yet if that is a cisgender or transgender role. Lili was not the first trans person treated by Magnus Hirschfeld’s clinic in Berlin, and it is known that there was trans staff there.
This brings me to the big criticism I hear of the film. Why was the role of Lili not played by a trans actor? I think that would have been not easy. This is a film about a trans woman transitioning, which means that much of the file features Einer, not Lili. In Orange is the new Black, when there was a scene looking back to before the trans character Sophia Burset transitioned, that part was not played by Laverne Cox, but by her twin brother M Lemar. I know from personal experience that once I had transitioned, I was not happy to go back to presenting as male.
The other issue is that there are not enough trans actors and none with the kind of box office pulling power that Eddie Redmayne brings to the project. Although Felicity Huffman gave an excellent performance in Trans America, I felt then that the part should have been played by a trans woman or by a male actor. Nichole Kidman was at one stage the front runner to play this role which I think would have been a mistake.
Julie Hesmondhalgh played trans woman Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street for many years, but eventually, most people forgot that she was trans and saw her as a cisgender woman. Some will argue that is OK because most trans women want to happen – and most trans men I know to pass easily. So perhaps the real achievement will come when trans men and trans women are regularly cast in cisgender roles.
The currently scheduled release date for the Danish Girl in the UK is January 1st, 2016 – although I understand that the release date for the USA is earlier in November 2015. I definitely will be looking forward to seeing the film and especially to seeing the public reaction. If, as predicted, the film picks up a raft of Oscar, Emmy, and BAFTA nominations, then perhaps 2016 will be the tipping point for trans people and the breaking down of the last frontier for civil rights.
In the meantime, do watch this space as I will be posting a full article about the life of Lili Elbe, which is a far more gritty story than the somewhat sanitized and romanticized version presented in the Danish Girl.